Crossing (30)

I am fascinated by the boundaries between us. Borders between countries, lines drawn on rock, boundaries between people, between cultures–arbitrary or innate, they separate us, define us. But boundaries aren’t just barriers. They provide the arena for moving back and forth between the two. They offer the possibility of exchange. I can ride the charter bus from the Coachella Valley to Algodónes. I can walk across the border and be in Mexico. One line, drawn no doubt by nations after war, shouldn’t be able to make so much difference. I’ve studied the border from the bus, the way the fence runs through the desert, a jagged monster, the sprawling remains of extraterrestrials. I can find no clues, no evidence that one side of the fence should be so different from the other.

shot of the border looking toward Mexico from the U.S.

But walk a few yards toward el otro lado, the other side, and you can feel the change. It is of the body, I believe, and not the mind, yet I return to it again and again and again, wanting to make sense of it, trying to figure it out. When I walk across, my body knows I’m in a foreign country. Because I lived there once, it feels like coming home, but this is a comfort of the heart, I think, the soul, and not the body. The body knows this is not the land where it was raised. It’s not geography. My scrutiny of the fence line across the desert between us revealed nothing, only made me marvel, knowing just across it lives another world, a stone’s throw only, two crows flying. The land doesn’t change at the border, but we breathe different air. Spanish diphthongs and mariachi and sidewalks all sing Mexico. Grackles call out in their native tongue. Our bodies know.

The Music of Mexico (22)

When I flew to Cabo San Lucas for the first time, a kind man took me in his taxi to catch the local bus just outside the airport. I remember a woman smiling at me when I took my seat. The bus driver left the door open as he drove, dirt flying away from the wheels where the side roads reached the paved highway. I was a ringing bell, the loud music and the air and the open desert in the distance resonating through me. I was so filled up I cried. There were times when I lived in Mexico when instead it was all dissonance, when I counted music blasting from six different neighbors in crazed competition, or on the fourteenth day of the town saint’s festival when the rockets exploded nonstop, and after two weeks of it, my endurance was shot. I wanted to scream. But there is a cadence to a country, some etheric weaving of language and land, of custom and spirit, and our bodies grow used to this rhythm. We miss it when it’s gone.

vegetables in wooden bins at Mexican market

When I first came back from Mexico, Sortera’s family produce stand at the farmer’s market here became one of my comforts. I latched onto them as one of the places I could still speak Spanish. I remember when I was still raw, listening to their rapid speech, their lively, happy banter, their laughter, for me the undercurrent to everyday life in Mexico running through it. I would stand there choosing a head of green cabbage, or filling a plastic bag with yellow and red and green bell peppers, and let it all wash over me, both soothed by it and filled with yearning. The ambient sounds were wrong, I know, but if I closed my eyes, I could have been standing at my favorite produce stand in the tianguis in Ajijic, the weight of the cabbage heavy in my hand. The day I spent in Algodones, it was the song of the grackles by the river that swept me back in time. And later in the little town’s zócolo, part park, part plaza, I sat on a white wrought iron bench and let the familiar sounds cradle me, the taco vendors, the music cranked up from someone’s car stereo, the loudspeaker mounted on a passing car announcing some event, the occasional grackle. I closed my eyes and let the music of Mexico wash over me. Now I let the memory carry me back, let it ring my bell.


Grackles Bring Me Home (4)

My cats and I and Lolita Roja, trusty red Jetta, loyal companion, were heading south on the highway that runs along the western coast of mainland Mexico, sporadic snatches of blue off to our right, the Sea of Cortez. We’d arrived the night before on the ferry from La Paz in Baja California Sur. As the light grew, I remember feeling like I had returned to civilization after nine months in uncharted desert wilderness. I drove through the first highway toll booth and stopped just on the other side to buy ice from the small tienda there. I remember it as though we’d moved from black and white to technicolor, my first sensory experience of the mainland, Dorothy and Toto in that first glimpse of Munchkinland. I remember colors, painted concrete, a kind of careful tendedness, and a sea of bird sounds. Rows of trees–cypresses, I think–lined both sides of the road, filled with big black birds greeting the day. It was madness. They were all talking at once, wild, animated, exotic. I didn’t know then they were grackles, but I was awed by them, and I remember a deep sense of having stepped into another world, not in Kansas anymore. I loved those noisy birds, trees that talked, alive with loud, squawking black fruit.

I left those sheer numbers behind a few days later in San Blas, for the most part, though we had our share of grackles along Lake Chapala, too. I’ve met them three times here since I’ve been back in the States–once when I was trespassing on a golf course in south Palm Springs, once in 29 Palms and once at dusk in the big trees in the parking lot of my neighborhood Ralph’s. But always only a handful, and mostly they’ve been absent. I’ve missed them. They were comforting, somehow, a familiar thread of sound embedded in my life in Jalisco. Last week I walked through Algodones in the state of Baja California. I wanted to find the Colorado River there. I walked alone on dirt roads, wary at first, the U.S.-trained fear of Mexico having seeped into me in recent years without my knowing. I shrugged it off, began to relish my return to this foreign land I’ve come to love. I passed homes part ruins and part unfinished construction, fresh laundry flapping in las brisas, dogs and children watching me from the fronts of houses, bougainvillea and cactus tended along the fence lines. The colors and textures, the richness that is Mexico saturated my starved estadounidense self. Just before the river, I came to a grove of trees alive in grackles. I stopped in the middle of the road and listened to their wild vocalizations, a mad delight rising in my belly, my chest. I felt like I was coming home.